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No Community, No Christ

“Stir up one another to love and good works” (Hb. 10:24).

A minister set out on a pastoral visit. He was concerned about a parishioner who had stopped attending services. When the pastor arrived, he found the man sitting alone by the fireplace. The pastor quietly took a seat by the man. They sat in that way for a few minutes, staring into the flames of the fire. Then the pastor reached for the tongs. He picked up one solitary, burning ember, placed it on the hearth, and sat back down. Silently, they watched as the ember flickered and went out. The minister rose, picked up the now cold ember and threw it back into the fire. Once again, it began to glow. The pastor turned to leave and the parishioner looked up, saying, “Thank you for the sermon, pastor. I will see you on Sunday.”

The Book of Hebrews takes a profound turn in its final pages. No other epistle is so dense with theology and mysticism as Hebrews. It is a seminarian’s hay day – contemplating truth, sacrifice, Melkizadeck, Mount Zion, the deepest foreshadowings and the most profound revelations. Then the book immediately climaxes. All the theology boils down to a fundamental command. The doctrines and mysteries come to head with one final, surprising conclusion: “Stir up one another to love and good works.” The whole commandment reads in this way:

“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hb. 10:24-25).

Hebrews is a gigantic mountain, and this is its zenith. What is the culmination of your entire life? What is your ultimate objective and success as a human being? It is church community.

Should this be surprising? It would not have surprised any of our Christian ancestors. The community, the assembly, was the defining pillar of Christianity for three hundred years before the Church had a bible. The earliest Christians understood a Christian in no other way but by his relationship with the body, his presence in the assembly. St. John Chrysostom taught that the single greatest spiritual danger is to withdraw from parish community. Even John Wesley taught, “There is nothing more unchristian than a solitary Christian.” Christianity and community are synonyms.

The other day, I listened to an elderly man reminisce about Sunday as it used to be in southern culture. Church service was nonnegotiable on Sundays, and that service was concluded with an hour of coffee and food, which culminated into religious education classes. Oftentimes, people returned again on Sunday evening for more worship and studies. What has changed? Are we busier? Do we have more responsibilities? No. Only one thing has changed: our priorities. We – our culture, individuals and society alike – we have lost the heart of Christianity.

Christianity is community, but what does this look like? In our Gospel today, Christ sums up the Law in two commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-39).

Religious people are good at the first law, or at least, we tend to think we are. We go to Church regularly with the intent of glorifying God. We come, say our prayers, take the Eucharist, and fulfill our pious obligation. The second law is not so popular. Instead, we tend to consider our neighbor as a distraction from God. We become irritated with other people who get in our way. The great irony is that our worship of God and our relationship with our neighbor is mutually inclusive. You cannot have one without the other.

Love of God and love of neighbor are one and the same. St. Augustine taught: “He who loves man is as he who loves God: for man is God’s image, in which God is loved, as a king is honored in his image.” In the Roman Empire, it was normal for an emperor’s image to be shown in the streets and marketplaces. Anyone who passed the image was expected to bow or honor it. It is no different in our own times in the honor we pay to an American Flag. This is why to burn a flag or to refuse to kneel during our national anthem is an act of heinous treason. The honor we give to a symbol is the honor we give to the represented. Your neighbor is in the image of God. The love you pay to your neighbor is love paid to God.

The scriptures take this one step farther. Not only are we called to love our neighbor. That love of neighbor is most required within church community: the local parish. St. John writes to the community: “Beloved, let us love one another…whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 Jn. 4:7). Christ says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). Our regard for our fellow Christians is the mark of salvation.

What we see in the Book of Hebrews is not a side suggestion, but a clarification of everything Christ died for. So, let us take a moment to look at our passage more closely:

“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hb. 10:24-25).

“Let us consider” sounds weak in English. The greek verb is: ‘katanoeo.’ Literally, it means: ‘concentrate your entire mind on something’; ‘be focused continually with resolution.’ “Let us consider how to stir up one another” means: the minute you walk into the church doors, you should be interested, pondering, concerned with the needs and struggles of the people around you. The Epistle does not say: “Clergy, consider how to stir up one another.” It says: “Brethren…consider how to stir up one another.” This is our charge as Christian people.

“Let us consider how to stir up one another.” “Stir up” is a fun word: ‘paroxusmos.’ It means: ‘stimulate,’ ‘excite,’ ‘rekindle the embers,’ or ‘fan the flame.’ Paroxysm is a derivative from ‘paroxusmos.’ It is an active word, violent even. It means be vigilant in stirring up affections for God and devotion to community.

“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”

Earlier this week, I heard something that surprised me from a very dear friend. She is an extremely pious woman. She is maybe even a saint. Yet, what she said was a heresy of the most egregious kind. It was a heresy that would have scandalized our Christian ancestors, which clashes with Holy Scripture, and was preached against by all the Church Fathers. She said: “I don’t come to church for the people. I come to church for God.” What is that? Did you hear me correctly? Yes, indeed, this is our own attitude much of the time? There is a grain of truth to it. Yet, it is wrong. It is not biblical. It is most certainly not Christian. We come to Church for God and the people.

“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”

In Greek, it reads: “not neglecting to ‘episunagogue’” – “not neglecting to ‘synagogue’”. This is not talking about bible studies at the coffee shop. This word is explicitly referring to Mass: to the weekly coming together of the church community for its liturgy.

Once there, what are we meant to do? We must “encourage one another.” We must ‘parakaleo.’ ‘Kaleo’ means to ‘call out’ or ‘reach out.’ ‘Para’ means to come ‘alongside.’ When a famous chaplain was teaching at a seminary, he described the primary role of the chaplain. It is rarely to teach or instruct, he said. Rather, his role is to come along side and walk hand in hand with someone through the Valley of the Shadow. This is what it means to ‘parakaleo.’ This is our task as fellow parishioners.

In his letters, St. Paul preached: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (Eph. 4:29)…“Encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess. 5:11). We are accountable for every word we say. We are accountable for our decisions to speak words that nurture harmony in the parish, that foster peace, and kindle devotion for God.

The minister and parishioner stared at the ember as it flickered on the hearth. It was radiant in the fireplace. The embers charged one another with heat and energy. They kept each other alive. Left to itself, the ember quickly died, that is, until it was returned once more to the flames. We are no different.

“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith...Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hb. 10:22-25).

May God help us to be intent to encourage, build up, and kindle devotion in one another.


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